Social Media’s use during crises is becoming commonplace: What are we learning?

Post by: Kim Stephens

Social Media’s use during disasters is now a common occurrence, every new event has its related #hashtag. But what are we learning from these events? My colleague Claire B. Rubin and I were discussing the overarching question “is the frequency of use bringing new innovations, progress, and improvements to crisis communications?” I guess the crux of the question, though, depends on progress for whom? I think certainly the public has seen all of the above–innovation, progress and improvements, however, information dissemination isn’t necessarily propagated from traditional sources. [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=boulder+colorado+fire&iid=9672580″ src=”″ width=”380″ height=”205″ /]

I’d like to highlight two important thoughts regarding what we might be learning, and I’ll continue with this line of thinking for the next couple of days.

1. Are crisis communications improved by the use of social media or are social media the source of rumors and missinformation?

A new empirical study conducted by a research team at Yahoo addressed the question: Twitter Under Crisis: Can we trust what we RT?. The study focused on tweets after the Chilean earthquake with a focus on “the dissemination of false rumors and confirmed news”.

Our analysis shows that the propagation of tweets that correspond to rumors differs from tweets that spread news because rumors tend to be questioned more than news by the Twitter community. This result shows that it is posible to detect rumors by using aggregate analysis on tweets.

By analyzing tweets of 7 different items that were later confirmed as true against tweets of 7 different items that were later confirmed to be false, the authors of the study were able to understand “false rumor propagation”.  Overall, when an item was true, retweets (over 95%) affirmed the information, with a very low percentage of tweets denying–less than 1%. However, when an item was false, such as the tweet announcing the death of artist Ricardo Arjona, the number of retweets decreased considerably and the number of tweets denying the information increased markedly (over 50%). In other words, the community self-corrected the information.  The authors conclude:

This result suggests also a very promising research line: it could possibly detect rumors by using aggregate analysis on tweets.

The article also has a good bibliography for those interested in further reading.

2. Is progress occurring regarding the use of social media for crisis communications?

Another interesting presentation about the use of social media in disasters is called  “Community in Crisis: What Governments can learn from the Boulder Community’s usage of Social Media during the Boulder Fire”. The data were put together by Tery Spataro from Orange Insights. In this presentation, she demonstrates how people relied on social media, in particular twitter and Google maps with displays of aggregated data, to get information about everything from the status of the fire, to shelters, donations and opportunities to help aid victims.

Citizens not only filled the information void during the response phase, but are now using social media to help each other recover.

Of note:

  • 985,099 people were reached with tweets related to fire (#boulderfire)
  • A community map of the fire, created by a citizen using Google Maps,  included information regarding everything from fire areas, evacuation areas, emergency response info, and photos, and had over 1.8 million views
  • (Not in the slideshow, but I also found) A Facebook page dedicated to thanking firefighters called “Fourmile Heroes” with 1,857 fans. It was created by a group of Boulder citizens to help local firefighters who lost their homes.

In contrast, I found

  • The Boulder Office of Emergency Management, as of today,  has 674 friends on Facebook.
  • Boulder OEM has 464 followers on Twitter–they are following 0 people. Their last tweet was Sept. 17.
  • Boulder OEM did eventually launched a comprehensive website with fire-related information (so we should assume their efforts were concentrated there).

The author of the study concluded that the EM community should have had ready “a Twitter account, Map, Facebook, and include Mobile communications”.

I would argue that this slide-show demonstrates how progress is occurring. The progress, however, is maybe not what we expected. Maybe the progress is in how citizens are learning to help themselves. Boulder could become the ultimate demonstration of a resilient community.

3 responses to “Social Media’s use during crises is becoming commonplace: What are we learning?

  1. Great post, Kim. You’re right on the money–it’s neither necessary nor appropriate for Boulder OEM to compete for attention with the crowdsourced efforts.

    And the Yahoo work on the dynamics of retweeting are exactly the sort of evidence-based news we can use.

    • Thanks for this post. I like your examples that illustrate nicely how social media can help to stay in touch in case of a disaster.
      The Red Cross did a study about this including a nice set of slides as we mention here:

      Particularly we point out that if the electricity grid and other parts of a country’s infrastructure are damaged, social media except for the battery-powered radio might be of limited use. Social media – as Haiti has also illustrated – requires electricity and telecommunication infrastructure to be available for the people to be reached.
      However, it is a great tool to keep relatives informed in far away places how disaster recovery is progressing ….. especially if one knows that family members are affected.

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